The enormous cost of food waste and what can be done about it
Food waste is a big problem throughout the world, and the United States is one of the biggest offenders. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food waste is estimated at between 30-40% of the total United States food supply. That equals about 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food.
Not only is wasting food an ethical or moral issue, it’s a business and economic one. That’s literally billions of dollars being thrown away, directly affecting revenue, profits and economic vitality. Luckily, food waste is starting to get attention in business circles.
Globally, about $750 billion in food is lost or wasted every year. That can come from myriad factors — production, handling and storage, processing. In first-world countries, like the United States, most of the waste can be attributed to consumption — for example, throwing away your leftovers after a meal. But in third-world countries, the problems arise in production and handling and storage.
Andy Anderson, UNIBusiness professor of management and expert in global supply chain management, said a big solution for less-developed countries lies in blockchain technology, which allows organizations to track and store data along the entire food supply. In its most basic form, blockchain is a system of registering and storing enormous amounts of data. For food, that means collecting everything from a seed being planted to an item being delivered to a grocery story.
“Using blockchain technology, you can understand exactly where each individual food item comes from,” Anderson said. “This is technology being developed and used right now.”
Blockchain can help food suppliers and communities understand where food is being wasted, which might entice them to make changes along the supply chain, leading to economic benefits, increased food security and reduced environmental impacts. For businesses, the case to implement blockchain is a long-term play, Anderson said. The investment is steep, but over time the reduced cost of food waste can offset the initial price tag.
“For companies that are in business for the long term, it does make a lot of sense,” Anderson said. “The bottom-line results take time. I do think blockchain is the future, and it could benefit everyone.”
UNIBusiness’ Iowa Waste Reduction Center (IWRC) has already taken steps to curb this problem through its food waste program. The IWRC focuses on the consumption side of food waste, and it primarily works with schools, nursing homes and some cities. The IWRC will perform a walk-through of each facility and create a food waste report, providing potential solutions and statistics on just how much food an organization is wasting.
Solutions vary, but some common fixes involve donating food and composting. The IWRC helps organizations implement these practices as well.
Curbing waste can have a business benefit. Jennifer Trent, an expert in sustainability at the IWRC, said there are tax incentives to donating food. There’s also a reduction in disposal costs if the organization starts donating instead of sending food to landfills.
“A lot of organizations that we visit don’t want to take extra hours to manage this food waste in a sustainable manner,” Trent said. “Until we can come in and say, ‘You’re going to save this much money by reducing your disposal costs and the amount of time the hauler has to spend at your location.’”
As the conversation ramps up around food waste and sustainability, technologies like blockchain and programs like the IWRC will play a huge role in reducing waste in the United States and abroad.